Monday, October 19, 2009

"Held By The Taliban" series


The New York Times is currently running a series that is a cross between a journal entry and narrative reporting by David Rohde, a journalist who was captured by the Taliban in November 2008 and was released over 7 months later. There are five parts to it, and (right at this moment that I'm looking at it now) there are only three parts up.

What's interesting to me is that his account is being showcased on page A1, just right before the fold (at least for the installment in Monday's paper.) The formatting of his article is distinctively different from the other stories, with the words spaced more apart and each line is half a double space. I mention this only because this immediately drew my attention, and it was like the editors were announcing that this is not an ordinary article, certainly not one that follows the vein of objectivity. From the very first sentence, I felt like I was reading this on a computer, on a blog of some sort – and not on the front page of the paper.

You can see the difference between Rohde's piece and the other articles below.

This is not a criticism – more like an observation. I really enjoyed the article, and I am really glad that I managed to read it in the paper instead of online. For some reason, even though online news can easily reach new readers, I like the finality behind having something printed on a page. It makes it seem more official and much more important.

And this is important. The column/article (I'm really not sure what word to use for it) allows us an insight to the Taliban and the terrain of Afghanistan. I don't consider myself an expert at all in war news (or any news for that matter... hence, this blog) but I know that reading Rohde's account is going to stay with me more than reading a run-of-a-mill article about the current situation in Afghanistan. That's because instead of making use of numbers and statistics to convey how horrible and desperate the situation is in this "forgotten war," Rohde's personal account is able to transfer that statistical horror into images and voices and people.

In the first installment of this series, titled "7 Months, 10 Days in Captivity," Rohde seems to issue a disclaimer by saying that everything he has written is from his memory, and therefore from his point of view.

What follows is the story of our captivity. I took no notes while I was a prisoner. All descriptions stem from my memory and, where possible, records kept by my family and colleagues. Direct quotations from our captors are based on Tahir’s translations. Undoubtedly, my recollections are incomplete and the passage of time may have affected them. For safety reasons, certain details and names have been withheld.

I thought that Rohde's was brave to admit this, and also in turn, to cover his ass. There are some insane readers of the Times (Have you read any of the letters sent in by readers? There are some close, close readers who really seem to have a vendetta against reporters) and if Rohde's haven't admitted that all that is written is in a first-person view, he would have gotten some pretty scathing emails about how flawed his "reporting" is.

However, his admission did not allay some readers' criticism. Rohde's answered some readers' questions over at the At War blog and the first (like, eight) questions addressed how Rohde was naive about the Taliban, how his depictions show how ignorant he was of them, and how he was stupid and selfish to have gotten captured, along with the Afghan journalist and driver who accompanied him.

Actually, the blog has been updated since I checked it earlier today, and the first questions now seem to actually be from readers who are concerned that Rohde's account does not belong in the hard news section of the paper and website since it does not really broadcast larger issues in terms of policy/decision making in Afghanistan. It is really interesting to see that put in words since I touched upon it earlier except did not really go into the significance of it beyond "Wow, it looks really different." But I do stand by what I said earlier, which is that I like it. Reading Bill Keller's answer to the readers, I think he summed it up pretty well why I do not think it is a "travesty on journalism" that Rohde's account is front page and in installments:

As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.

Why, thank you, Mr. Keller, for explaining it so succinctly. Whenever something like this happens, there is always a fear of the reporter becoming the story, and thus hindering the actual importance of the story. However, in this particular instance, I really think that Rohde's first-hand experience has enhanced the image we have of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Anyway, I really recommend reading this series, and following through to Part 5. This reminded me a little of Kate Webb, a journalist who was captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War for 23 days, and how the short time with her captors made her later reportingof the Vietnam War much more nuanced.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Abortion Doctor


This post is admittedly long overdue. In the August issue of Esquire magazine, John Richardson wrote an article about Warren Hern, the last doctor in America who performs late abortions. The entire piece (it's really long) flows so easily and reads like a movie being played out on the big screen. The theatrical manner that Richardson chose to take with this piece works, mostly because the subject is just so dramatic. In some cases, I think Richardson's style actually enhanced the story, making each "scene" seem like there is more than one side to the story. And as it is in real life, people are always multi-dimensional.

I can say truthfully that this was one of the best articles I have read in a long time. If you get the time, give it a read, and don't be intimidated by how many pages there are because it really just flies. Richardson gets down to the nitty-gritty details but it's always relevant to the story – like how Hern's windows are bullet proof and the window shades must always be drawn. There is a careful amount of time spent on Hern's receptionist and nurses, but his detail to attention really conveys how incredibly unique this abortion clinic is. Like by allowing us to listen in to the receptionist's side of the conversation with the patients who call in asking for an appointment for an abortion. At one point during a particular phone conversation, the receptionist says I also want you to know, we don't care what your reasons are. We're not going to judge you.

And that's another thing: Richardson does not use quote marks to show quotes. Instead, he employs italics for quotes, which adds a sense of urgency to everything that is said. It makes it seem like everything that is quoted in this article is important, even if it is something simple like I'm Dr. Hern. Where are you from? Lie down now. Put your hand on your chest. This gave me the sense that every single quote was carefully ruminated over by the author before adding it into the piece. In a way, sensitivity to how Hern is conveyed is extremely important because of his controversial work.

With most profiles (especially in magazines), writers often take a side of the subject, and they stick to it. They find a quirk, and they make that quirk translate into his entire being. Like how President Obama is both African and American, so a profiler might highlight his worldliness and his ability to reach out past party barriers, and the words "born of two worlds" will probably be used a lot. I think this is actually a pretty effective way of showcasing a point, but Richardson does not do that in this article. I initially thought that the article was going to be like a manifesto for liberals and people who are pro-choice. I thought it was going to solidify my opinion on the abortion battle and this man's story is the answer. Something like that.

But Richardson neither lionizes nor demonizes Hern. What we have here is just the tip of the iceberg, a little glimpse into a very complicated, troubled man who believes, above all, that a woman should have the freedom to choose what to do with her own body. The key word here is "believe" because he does so fervently and almost angrily - but Richardson never writes any sort of opinion about it. I know the point in journalism is to be objective, but in a magazine such as Esquire – which famously painted John Walker Lindh, an American who converted to Islam and is allegedly a terrorist, as "a better person than you or I" in an amazing article by Tom Junod titled "Innocent" – I expected some side-taking to happen. It didn't, and the result is that Hern is just as much of a mystery as any normal person is. We are not one-dimensional talking boxes; we have opinions and thoughts and sometimes these two do not mesh together into a picture that makes sense. Richardson successfully paints Hern as not just an abortion doctor, a performer of disappearing acts (I'm sorry, was that too crude?); Hern is a person who believes so hard that it's almost difficult for us to empathize with him. At some points, his rants about how the people who are pro-life (Richardson writes that every time he uses that word, he employs air quotes) can seem almost vigilante-like and hateful.

And then Richardson will completely change it up by interviewing his wife, who is 27 years his junior and describes him as the most passionate and caring man she has ever met. To say the man is an onion is just so cliché, but I just ate everything up because it was so unexpected and yet so realistic. At one point, Hern says about his work you can never get used to this.

You can't, he says. I think we're hardwired, biologically, to protect small, vulnerable creatures, especially babies. The fetuses may not be babies, but some of them are pretty close.


I really could go on forever about how nuanced and amazing this profile of Hern was, but it seems kinda funny (funny strange, not funny ha ha) to me for that to be said, because what Richardson did was actually show the man as he is, with no verbal badges of honor and no condemnation. I do wish most profiles can be true to a person, but at the same time, most people aren't as interesting and complicated as Hern is. So it probably wouldn't work as well.

I should probably add that Hern disagreed with this article, mostly because he is not the last abortion doctor (Richardson probably did that for punch) and he hated being called an abortionist. I think the irony is that Richardson's repeated use of "abortionist" actually humanized Hern because this technical term, paired with all those effective stories from those close to him, painted a complete picture of the man.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory


This science article was brought to my attention by Gothamist, and I was intrigued by all the ethical issues it raised, which I always feel is lacking in many science articles.

Benedict Carey of the New York Times reports that scientists in Brooklyn have recently discovered that a drug they have been experimenting with- ZIP- could potentially erase or edit our memories. Currently, they have only experimented with animals, but the neuroscientists are confident that it could be used in humans. They think it would be groundbreaking because ZIP could help with trauma patients, or even alter addiction patterns.

However, there are some ethical concerns raised in the article, like how the drug could be misused to forget crimes, bad behavior, or even traumatic experiences that form a person's moral compass.

And the first thing I thought when I read this article was of Dollhouse. The new Fox show created by Joss Whedon is about a secret government entity, Dollhouse, that basically rents out mind-wiped individuals that have been replaced with new memories and personality so that they can meet their clients' needs. After an engagement with a client is over, the Doll's brain is wiped again and they resume their tabula rasa state.

Dollhouse has great potential for complexity, but I am just going to stick to the above very-bare-bones description of the show. One of the reasons why I am so thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of this new ZIP drug is because I remember in one of the episodes of Dollhouse, a character says something that might be accurate of our future, outside of sci-fi TV. He said that if such a technology– such as wiping a human's brain and implementing new memories– exists, then people will surely take that technology and use it for greedy purposes. He reasoned that according to history, humans have never been able to just let things alone. An example would be how we learned how to harness hydrogen energy, and then created the atomic bomb.

Can you imagine if this drug were possible? Even if we don't get to the creepy euphemism-for-prostitution scenario in Dollhouse, the uses that doctors have planned for ZIP can still raise some epic self-awareness issues. If we are talking about a traumatic experience, such as being raped, and the rape victim got that particular memory erased, he/she will also risk losing whatever new awareness that comes with this terrible burden- like avoiding situations that could lead to rape; or if the rapist was a close friend or family, learning about people and whether or not they are trustworthy.

How about for the case of addiction? The scientist in the article proposes that using ZIP could erase addiction tendencies in the brain. But then that brings up serious questions about the choices we make and how responsible we are for them. If we, as individuals, are aware of our personhood, we should try our best to overcome our demons. Why should something as debilitating and as life-changing as a drug addiction be erased by a simple injection? As we have learned, the reason why some drug addicts refuse to go back is because of the immense will power it took for them to get over their addiction (and on the other hand, a lot of drug addicts do relapse, so who knows.) If we can get rid of our addictive desires with a simple medical procedure, it might persuade drug addicts that being a drug addict might not be as much of a burden as it previously was, and they could be more easily persuaded to try the drug again (because they would never addicted) or even try other drugs.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Telling Twins Apart Takes New Meaning In Berlin Heist


The New York Times' Nicholas Kulish, who I greatly admire for his international articles, wrote about a great jewelry heist in Berlin that has the authorities confused over who to arrest. DNA evidence was found in a glove left by one of the three masked burglars and police, after capturing two of them, faced an unexpected dilemma: Both men were twins, making them genetically identical. The police have yet to decide which twin owns the glove.

Finally!- a newspaper article that can actually turn into a potential script for Hollywood! All the unoriginal minds in the movie industry are thirsting for wacky money-making plots, and since this story combines elements of Ocean's Eleven and The Parent Trap, I am confident that a news-reading producer will catch this and we will see it on the big screen faster than we can yell "Entrapment!"

The break-in happened in Germany's largest department store, KaDeWe, and there were surveillance footage of three men breaking and entering from a store window, and then leaving with jewelry and watches that are reportedly worth millions of dollars. They also did this without tripping a single alarm, which to me, was a jarring hole to have in an article about a robbery of an expensive department store. I searched around on Google, but since this only recently hit international, information was quite sparse. However, Deutsche Welle reported that authorities are quite perplexed as to how the three thieves managed to do that an suspected an inside job in the security department of KaDeWe.

Another thing I found odd in Kulish's article was that he failed to mention how the police knew where to look for the twins, Abbas and Hassan O. Once again, Deutsche Welle saves the day by reporting that the police had acted on a tip and collected evidence before arresting them.

I understand that sometimes when it comes to international reporting it is difficult/unnecessary to get all the details in a story that is meant for a broader audience. But when it comes to a jewelry heist committed by twins, I feel it's important to mention how they managed to get past security and how they were caught if they got past security. Even though it ended up being a boring answer like "authorities don't know" or "police got a tip," I was still expecting to see it in this article when I was reading it.

However, there is also an exclusion that Kulish chose to make which I completely agree with. He does not mention that the twins are Lebanese who had previously been rejected by the German authorities for asylum into the country. I found this from Der Spiegel (which I actually think is a pretty entertaining magazine) where it was reported that they belong to a Lebanese-Kurdish gang that has been tied to murders, break-ins, and knife attacks. According to Der Spiegel: "The Berliner Zeitung also reported that their extended family includes the 19-year-old offender who ran into and killed a senior citizen with a stolen BMW at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz last October."

So underneath this exciting article about a team of cat burglars lies a story about race and immigration policies in Germany. I wonder how this story looks to the typical German, a person whose nation has been previously been accused of violent xenophobia, when he reads that two of the three burglars are Lebanese men belonging to a Lebanese-Kurdish gang that has previously been linked to murders. As international readers, we are just taking in the sensational details (Jewel robbers! DNA! Twins!)– without understanding the impact that this might have to the Lebanese community in Berlin, especially since this story is probably widely-discussed. I'm interested in reading another article that might be able to shed some light on this issue, but that would have to be another story.

Or perhaps the reason why I am so interested in this is because this is happening in Germany. When I was studying in Prague, there was a Neo-Nazis march scheduled to happen in the city, or in some other town, and it was plastered all over international news websites. My reporting teacher complained in class that the only reason why this was getting attention was because of Eastern Europe used to be swarming with Nazis. She said that every country, especially America, encounters racism, but those are not as hotly reported as a Neo-Nazis march in Eastern Europe because there wasn't a world war and six million dead over our racial disagreements. She gave the KKK marches in Skokie as an example, and how the news of those would never enter the consciousness of foreigners. The Neo-Nazis story, on the hand, was what she called "sexy."

For me, I think the reason why I would be interested in the Lebanese reaction in Berlin to the jewel heist story is because I just love "fish-out-of-water" articles. But a part of me also knows that if this didn't happen in Germany, and happened instead in Indonesia and the burglars were of European-descent, I probably wouldn't be as interested.